Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Restorative Nature

Psalm 30
John 21:1-19

In my humble opinion, Peter is far too undervalued in the Protestant tradition, having been overshadowed in the biblical witness by Paul.  Not to downplay Paul's critical role in Church doctrine and his ministry to the Gentiles, but Peter has at least as much to say based on his actual experiences with our Lord and in his letters which, quite frankly, get to the point a whole lot quicker! 

It is within this ironic shadow, then, that Peter's restoration in John's gospel is a significant step toward that glorious day of Pentecost when the Church will be "breathed" into life - even with our flaws and short-comings!

Peter's experience during this encounter makes me think of those moments so many of us let slip by us, moments we missed when we could have actually made something right - whether we were at fault or not - before it's too late.  I am especially mindful of these things whenever those who mourn the loss of a loved one often have regrets of opportunities lost; some imagined, but some also very real - and all gone forever.  In Peter's case, we should wonder how he may have been feeling about the last time he saw Jesus alive; after he had boldly proclaimed he would give even his very life for our Lord, and then how heart-broken he must have felt when Jesus "accused" him of being less than honest about what he would be found willing to endure. 

I think we can be sure Peter meant every word he spoke when he spoke them - just as you and I often do.  I don't think Peter made his bold proclamation simply because he thought Jesus would want to hear it, and I don't Peter could possibly have envisioned what was to come and how he would get caught up in it any more than we can envision a time when we might actually be in mortal danger for our Lord's sake.  It happened, though, when Peter ran for his life after Jesus had been arrested, and Jesus' "accusation" against Peter came to fruition when the cock crowed - much to Peter's dismay and shame ... and profound regret.

Like every other Bible story, it is not enough to simply read the account and let it go as an historical event with historical players so far removed from us that we cannot imagine how the experience matters to us today except perhaps by its political implications.  This, I think, is the extraordinary challenge of theology for our time: making everything matter to us by somehow making these events moments we can experience for ourselves and learn from - because until we do, Jesus and religion and faith will never be more than abstract, feel-good, self-justifying notions we acknowledge from time to time as it suits our purposes.

Of course we can never "unring a bell", so it is always a mistake to live in or dwell on the past.  There are consistent biblical witnesses from the past, however, that remind us of timeless biblical AND HUMAN truths; and these truths are often a bit more revealing than we are comfortable admitting.  Psalm 30 is just one example when the psalmist acknowledges his faith in his "prosperity" (that is, when things are good) as he writes: "I said in my prosperity, 'I shall never be moved'."  In other words, when things are wonderful for us, our Lord is wonderful to us.  BUT the psalmist follows up: "Lord, You hid Your face, I was dismayed." 

Peter's "dismay" when he ran for his own safety after his "prosperity" had dried up, when his idealistic bubble had burst, is understandable to us - if we are willing to be honest with ourselves.  There is no need to ask for trouble if trouble can be avoided, and we certainly do not understand "martyrdom" the way Islamic terrorists seem to (nor does the Church even teach such foolishness!).  But when we are so far removed from the story, we can kid ourselves into believing we would have stood tall with Jesus on that Fateful Day.  I'm sure Peter thought so as well, but he didn't.  Nor, I suspect, would we.  So rather than live with and surrender to that perpetual failure or simply hand over to Peter alone, how do we move forward from that very dark moment?

When Jesus repeatedly asked Peter, "Do you love Me?", we may be as perplexed, as confused, and as dismayed as Peter was because our Protestant tradition has taught us that we need only to "make a profession of faith" and "be right in our hearts".  And we have come to such a careless and incomplete conclusion not because of what St. Paul taught but rather because of a careless interpretation of carefully selected verses taken out of their appropriate contexts; one of the many flaws borne of the 16th-century Reformation.  And yes, for all the good that came from the Reformation, it also had its share of flaws; flaws that, rather than being corrected over time, only perpetuated themselves. 

Peter wanted Jesus to understand how he "felt", how sorry he was - especially in this unforeseen moment when Peter surely could see an opportunity otherwise lost to make things right once again.  Jesus, however, wanted to know what Peter would actually be willing to "do".  It would appear Jesus had little interest in how Peter felt.  I might also add that the Lord did not seem to care how Abraham "felt" when he was asked to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.  Surely the Lord knew what was in Abraham's heart, but the Lord also wanted to know what Abraham was willing to "do" for our Lord.

It's hard to say whether or not Jesus is actually challenging Peter's "heart".  It is harder still to remove ourselves from this moment because even though we have not faced arrest and imprisonment - or death - in Jesus' name, we can surely recall many moments of denial in our envy, our lusts, our cursing and slander of our neighbors and one another, our denial of food to the hungry, our heartless turning away of those who are marginalized by our dominant culture, the withholding of our tithes and other offerings - all done and never repented of, ironically, under our own individualized, and substantially flawed, theology of "grace".

Denial of our Lord is not about whether there is a single, solitary moment in our lives when we once said, "Yes, Lord", though that is certainly the beginning; but it is NOT the end.  Our denials move into Jesus' command to Peter (and thus to the Church) to "feed My sheep" - that is, "DO" something.  Peter's context may be a bit broader because of his unique future in the Church, but our commission as the standing Body of Christ in the world today is no less compelling. 

Even if we can say from our hearts that we do truly love our Lord, we cannot - we must not - remove ourselves from Jesus' own commission in this moment when our Lord essentially says to Peter - AND to the Church, "Your words, your 'profession of faith, has no meaning because I've seen what you do.  I know how you feel but for the sake of My Holy Church, for the sake of My beloved 'sheep', I'm gonna need to know what you are willing to do; how far you are willing to go for My Sake and for My 'sheep'!"

"If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word" (John 14:23).  Sadly, the best we can do as the Church is to argue over exactly what "word" Jesus was referring to when Jesus Himself IS the Word.  When we witness or even participate in such nonsense, it can be said at that point that we are no better off than Peter was just before he ran away.  And this defies the Restorative Nature of our Lord.  We may continue to claim to have been "saved" in some moment of spiritual or emotional distress long ago but if we are unwilling to pursue that "word" in spirit and in truth but would much prefer to argue about the semantics of what we "have" to do, that moment of justification was just another abstract notion of self-justification.

Jesus clearly did not give up on Peter even though Peter had clearly once given up on Jesus, and that is a moment I think we call all relate to on some level; however, we must never simply shrug our shoulders and say, "oh, well; Jesus knows my heart".  We must heed Jesus' words not for the sake of our own souls, but rather for the sake of the "sheep" - for this is the heart of the Holy Church.  It is our call; it is our commission.  And it is our opportunity to understand  AND EMBRACE the "Restorative Nature" of our Lord when we heed that commission - and respond.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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